We love the North Cascades National Park for what it’s not: It’s not easy to get to, it’s not all that busy, and it’s not a simple park. The top part of the state’s Cascade spine is a patchwork of protected lands: a spread of national park here, a finger of national recreation land there, and a sliver of hydroelectric dams and powerhouses in the middle. The surrounding buffer of national forests and Canadian provincial parks makes for a large, wild chunk of the Pacific Northwest.
And then there’s long, squiggly Lake Chelan, a 50-mile scribble that starts in the peaks of the Cascades but ends in the low, orchard-laden hills of Eastern Washington. At the bottom tip, a thriving resort community that just recently fell in love with winemaking.
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the North Cascades into national park status in 1968, he was protecting 500,000 acres of old-growth cedar and ponderosa pine forest and some 300 glaciers.
Wilderness buffs love it for its inaccessibility, in places laughably extreme—like in Stehekin, where the Golden West Visitor Center has all the art, multimedia displays, and ranger assistance you could need in a park welcome point, but sits hours away from a road. Attracting some 27,000 visitors per year (Olympic National Park gets almost three million), it’s been named the sixth least-visited national park—but hey, it’s more popular than the one in the Arctic Circle.
Still, the North Cascades are more welcoming than they seem, with a beautiful highway winding from western greenery to the burnished colors of Eastern Washington, with boats ferrying up Ross Lake and Lake Chelan, with culinary excellence taking root in Chelan’s tiny towns, with trails springing from every one of the region’s few roads.
Better preserved than the Olympics, home to more towering peaks than Mount Rainier, and less crowded than either: We embrace the North Cascades, as long as we keep it our little secret.